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  • Do the Browser Wars Still Matter?

    August 13th, 2010

    Once upon a time, there was a battle to the death between Microsoft’s Internet Explorer and Netscape Navigator. Microsoft made their product leaner and meaner, forced it onto PC desktops, and, in the end, defeated an increasingly bloated rival.

    On the Mac platform, Microsoft convinced (some say coerced) Apple to make Internet Explorer the default browser, and, for several years, this situation persisted. Indeed, the original Public Beta of Mac OS X had a native version of Internet Explorer.

    Having won the browser wars, development of Internet Explorer languished on both the Mac and Windows platforms. No sense in investing development dollars for a product that is not only free, but is already way ahead of the pack. The few remaining rivals had pitiful market shares.

    In the space of a few years, some fascinating things happened. Mozilla, the non-profit organization that rose out of the ashes of Netscape came up with Firefox. Apple, not seeing any improvements in Internet Explorer, adapted a Unix-based browser engine, KHMTL, and created an open source alternative known as WebKit, which powered the Safari browser. In turn, Microsoft withdrew the Mac version of Internet Explorer.

    Yes, Safari was lean when it came to features, but it blew the pants off IE when it came to performance and compatibility with most prevailing Web standards. Microsoft simply marched to its own beat, hoping to enforce proprietary standards that would tether people to their highly profitable products whenever possible.

    As it stands in 2010, MSIE’s worldwide market share has dropped below 60%. Firefox has a good portion of the remainder, with Google Chrome (which uses Apple’s WebKit rendering engine), Safari and Opera bringing up the rear. There are other contenders, but these are the majors.

    When it comes to performance and compatibility, Internet Explorer’s competition has worked hard to best the most difficult compatibility tests — currently Acid3 — and deliver blazing performance. It has almost reached the point where all or most of the alternative browsers deliver pages seamlessly, as fast as the state-of-the-art and connection speeds allow.

    To nobody’s surprise, Microsoft has decided it’s high time to become competitive once again, and the forthcoming IE 9 promises to match the competition in all significant respects, including enhanced support for HTML5. There will, of course, be no returning to the Mac platform, even though the Bing search engine is now an option on the latest Safari.

    The goal to boost performance and increase compatibility for all sites that are compliant with current standards has basically made your choice of browser almost a non-issue, at least if you’re not a power user. They all support a basic set of features, such as adding and managing bookmarks and delivering pages as tabs rather than new document windows.

    Yes, you can list a number of areas where individual browsers sport unique capabilities, or at least different ways of doing the same things, and those features might appeal to power users who crave greater levels of control over their browsing experience.

    At the same time, if you can depend on getting an essentially identical rendering experience regardless of which browser you choose — in other words pages look essentially the same — do the various and sundry choices matter so much anymore?

    Now to be perfectly fair, the ongoing browser wars have been good, because the developers of each have had big incentives to make their products batter. That applies even more to Microsoft, which pretty much gave up on building a decent browser years ago, and left us with the pathetic Internet Explorer 6, notorious not just for its inability to fully support Web standards, but those well-known security lapses.

    That Microsoft has decided to build a promising IE upgrade has little to do with the normal state of developing new products, but as the result of serious competition.

    But for most of you, I dare say most any modern browser will get the job done. On a Mac, you can stick with Safari, unless another app has unique features you prefer. Indeed, I don’t perceive any significant advantages in Google Chrome that make me want to switch. Now that Safari supports extensions, one of the most intriguing options in Firefox may not be so compelling, unless you crave an add-on for which there’s no equivalent in Safari. And if there’s enough demand, a Safari version might ultimately arrive.

    Opera often pioneers features that end up in other browsers. It’s a fairly lightweight app that also includes a decent email application, one that might be a deal maker if you aren’t enamored of Apple Mail, Thunderbird, Microsoft Entourage or any of the other popular alternatives.

    For Windows users, when IE 9 comes out, I suppose it’ll be all right to upgrade. But since Microsoft must be dragged kicking and screaming to improve their browser, you’d be better off using something else, if only to send a message to Microsoft that they can’t take customers for granted and fall down on the job all over again.

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